State of Elections

William & Mary Law School | Election Law Society

A Safe Place for Elections

By: Matthew Catron

Colorado is known for more than just picturesque mountain views and crystal-clear rivers. The Centennial State touts some of the best education, healthcare, and the best state economy in the nation. To add to this impressive list of achievements, Colorado has been christened as the safest state in the nation to host an election.

Colorado’s impressive new title come from two different sources: The Washington Post and Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen. Over the last decade, Colorado took several steps forward in election security to ensure the integrity of its elections. First, Colorado implemented a first-of-its-kind risk-limiting audit. In 2013, the Colorado legislature codified this new auditing technique (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 1-7-515 (2013)), which was required for the 2017 elections and all “primary, general, coordinated, or congressional vacancy elections thereafter.” A risk-limiting audit is a form of statistical analysis that requires officials to match certain paper ballots with the electronic voting machines’ interpretation of the ballots. This ensures that the machine read the ballot correctly. To guarantee audited ballots are completely random and not preselected by auditors, the process to select ballots has several levels of chance. First, a name is drawn from a hat of observers—individuals from around the nation who were invited to view the audit—and that person rolls a 10-sided die. This process is repeated until auditors achieve a 20-digit number—also known as a “seed”—which is required for the risk-limiting software. The number is input into the software to target specific ballots in particular ballot boxes from each county. The closer the race, the more ballots must be drawn in order to prove that there was not a statistically significant deviation from the final result. Ideally, the recorded responses on each paper ballot will match perfectly with the voting machines’ interpretation of each ballot. According to Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, the purpose of the risk-limiting audit is to ensure the integrity of elections.

In addition to risk-limiting audits, Colorado recently hosted an elections-style “war games.” While risk-limiting audits ensure the integrity of elections after the fact, war games are meant to prepare election officials for scenarios that could occur before an election or on Election Day. This drill included over 200 election officials from Colorado, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security. Amber McReynolds, the Denver Director of Elections, said the goal was to create an Election Day Armageddon and have election officials respond to the different scenarios as they present themselves. Disaster scenarios ranged from a hail storm destroying a polling place to massive security breaches that leaked confidential voter information on Election Day. According to the Colorado Secretary of State, because Colorado is so closely politically divided, the state is a prime target for election inference. Creating and participating in these types of election war games prepares election officials for worst-case scenarios.

Finally, nearly every county in Colorado is equipped with up to date voting machines. While the risk-limiting audit ensures votes are correctly recorded and war games help election officials prepare for Election Day, proper voting equipment is crucial to guaranteeing each citizen’s vote is counted. The federal government recommends that electronic voting machines have a paper trail so the electronic readout can be verified. The rationale is simple: paper cannot be hacked. Even though there is a paper backup, machines are typically still doing the counting. However, Colorado once again goes the extra mile to ensure accuracy. Once polls close and the machines produce totals, Colorado election officials hand count the paper ballots to verify that voting machines correctly tabulated the votes. This two-step approach decreases the possibility that voting machines incorrectly tabulated vote totals.

While there is not a general consensus on how to ensure the integrity of elections, Colorado is leading the nation with efforts in election security. With election war games, paper ballots, and risk-limiting audits, Colorado took significant steps to secure an election from start to finish. Hopefully other states will follow Colorado’s example to further secure elections nationwide.

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